Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Pynchon (page 1 of 1)

Thomas Pynchon, America’s Theologian

Today is the pub day for the longest essay I’ve ever published: “The Far Invisible: Thomas Pynchon as America’s Theologian.” (It’s paywalled, but of course you’ll want to subscribe.) (UPDATE: It has now escaped its paywall.)

How seriously do I mean my claim that Pynchon is a theologian? Is it a substantive claim or a provocation? I mean it pretty seriously.

Here’s how I would put it: Emmanuel Levinas famously argued that “ethics is first philosophy” – it is in ethics that philosophy should and indeed must begin. So, what is first theology? The answer to that question might not always be the same; it might vary by time and place. So I say that in our moment suspicion is first theology – a double suspicion, first that the rulers of this world are not the beneficent guides that they claim to be, and second that the world they rule is not the sum of things. (As Wendell Berry puts it, there are two economies, the market economy and the Kingdom of God.) Such suspicion is thus, in an endless doubling, skeptical and hopeful. These are also the two modes of prophecy, it seems to me.

This first theology is not, and cannot be, the whole of theology; but even Aquinas and Barth could not do the whole of theology, and we shouldn’t demand it of any theologian. I argue that Pynchon is our best guide to where and how theology in our time must begin; and one way to think of the task of theology for Christians is to ask what theological project should follow the one that Pynchon has inaugurated.

For those of you who are new to Pynchon — especially those who are intimidated by the thought of reading him — I’ve written an introductory guide just for you.

Finally (for now), just a couple of connections: I might want to put Pynchon in conversation with

Much more to do here!

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow Turns 50 – by Ted Gioia:

Pynchon may still have many admirers, but few who are willing to follow in his footsteps. Even an explicitly Pynchonian novel of more modern times, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, eventually rests its fictive universe on a compassionate, humanistic foundation, one that has no equivalent in Pynchon’s worldview. If Pynchon’s books were boats, they would be ones without a sea floor on which to set anchor. 

Ted is wrong about this, as I explain at some length — as in fifteen thousand words — in a forthcoming essay for the Hedgehog Review: “The Far Invisible: Thomas Pynchon as America’s Theologian.”  

reading Pynchon

Some years ago I tried to write a book that I called Anthropocene Theology … well, actually, I did write that book, but once I had written it I wasn’t satisfied. It arose from a series of blog posts on my old Text Patterns blog, and perhaps for that reason I couldn’t make it sufficiently coherent. I dunno, maybe someone would have published it anyway, but I wouldn’t have been happy with it, and I don’t need another book on my CV. So I set it aside. 

There was a lot about Thomas Pynchon in it, ideas that were and are important to me, so a couple of years ago I extracted all that and tried to make a book out of it also. But editors told me that the book was too short to be published in the form I sent it. (I own many shorter books, but hey, you can’t argue with editors about stuff like that.) Alas, it is also too long to be published as an essay. I will get it out into the world some day, even if only as a self-published thing, but in the meantime I want to share an offshoot of the project. 

Pynchon is a notoriously difficult writer, but also, in my view, a very great one who is not read as widely as he should be. So it occurred to me that it might be useful for me to write a kind of introduction to Pynchon: an overview of his life and work that might entice new readers and guide them in their efforts. So I did, and here it is. I hope some of you will find it useful. 

UPDATE: I’m very pleased to report that the long essay on Pynchon is not, after all, too long and will be published in the Summer issue of The Hedgehog Review


I tried to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld more than 20 years ago, and got about 500 pages in before I got firmly stuck in the mud. I just now returned to it, and while I managed to cross the finish line this time, my response was very much the same: for the first two-thirds of the book DeLillo weaves a masterful narrative, and then, rather suddenly it seems to me, he loses control of his material – and loses control completely. Part 5 occupies 150 pages and ought to occupy 40; the 125 pages of Part 6 could have been cut by half, or more, with no loss of meaning and considerable gain in narrative momentum. Moreover, certain themes which are central to Parts 1-4 — I think especially of their inquiry into the relationship between civilization and waste — disappear altogether in those two sections, making but a cursory reappearance in the Epilogue. When Lenny Bruce shows up in the novel the whole thing falls apart. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.

All this makes it very hard to evaluate Underworld. It is in many respects brilliant, but so manifestly undisciplined and misshapen that it dissipates its great power to a degree that I have rarely seen in fiction.

Anyway, on to what I really want to say here.

I’m sure this has been commented on before, but one way to think about this novel is as a central node in an ongoing conversation with Thomas Pynchon. Four examples:

One: Right in the middle of this book DeLillo describes at some length an imaginary film by Sergei Eisenstein. This has a structural and thematic purpose almost identical to that of The Courier’s Tragedy, the imaginary Jacobean drama that occupies a similarly central place in The Crying of Lot 49. In each case the imaginary literary work is a kind of reflection-in-a-distorted-mirror of the book you’re reading.

Two: DeLillo’s description of the Fresh Kills Landfill in Underworld clearly prompts a kind of response from Pynchon in his most recent and probably final novel, Bleeding Edge. DeLillo:

He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza — only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one. Bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade and linkage were directed in the end to this culminating structure. And the thing was organic, ever growing and shifting, its shape computer-plotted by the day and the hour. In a few years this would be the highest mountain on the Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami. Brian felt a sting of enlightenment. He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us.


Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind Island of Meadows, at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing — typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land.”

Yet there is something moving to Pynchon’s protagonist Maxine about the Island of Meadows, an “unexpected refuge, a piece of the ancient estuary exempt from what happened, what has gone on happening, to the rest of it.” Maybe it won’t last; maybe the developers will get it. But while it lasts, it is beautiful. (Update from 2021: the Fresh Kills Landfill is closed, while the Island of Meadows remains. But … where does the garbage go?)

Three: Underworld begins by attending to a distinct object, a baseball, and ends with a vision of the displacement of the material world by cyberspace, a vision prompted by a random conjunction of names, Sister Alma Edgar and J. Edgar Hoover:

A click, a hit and Sister joins the other Edgar. A fellow celibate and more or less kindred spirit but her biological opposite, her male half, dead these many years. Has he been waiting for this to happen? The bulldog fed, J. Edgar Hoover, the Law’s debased saint, hyperlinked at last to Sister Edgar — a single fluctuating impulse now, a piece of coded information. Everything is connected in the end. Sister and Brother. A fantasy in cyberspace and a way of seeing the other side and a settling of differences that have less to do with gender than with difference itself, all argument, all conflict programmed out. Is cyberspace a thing within the world or is it the other way around? Which contains the other, and how can you tell for sure?

Yes, “everything is connected in the end,” but is the connection revelatory or trivial? Full of occult meaning or just the accident of two identical strings? And in Bleeding Edge, as Maxine reflects on the “unexpected refuge” of the Island of Meadows, she compares it to DeepArcher, a Second Life-style video game and community and wonders whether DeepArcher too is a refuge — or, rather, something equally vulnerable to the depredations of the “developers.” (You may read more by me about these themes here.)

Four: The World Trade Center. In one section Underworld — published in 1997, but set between 1951 and, roughly, 1992 — the towers are going up:

The World Trade Center was under construction, already towering, twin-towering, with cranes tilted at the summits and work elevators sliding up the flanks. She saw it almost everywhere she went. She ate a meal and drank a glass of wine and walked to the rail or ledge and there it usually was, bulked up at the funneled end of the island, and a man stood next to her one evening, early, drinks on the roof of a gallery building—about sixty, she thought, portly and jowled but also sleek in a way, assured and contained and hard-polished, a substantial sort, European. “I think of it as one, not two,” she said. “Even though there are clearly two towers. It’s a single entity, isn’t it?”

“Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.”

“Yes, you have to look.”

(A subtly-handled contrast in DeLillo’s novel opposes the World Trade towers to the Watts Towers, the latter being handmade and non-commercial and radiant with purposive purposelessness.) In Bleeding Edge — published in 2013 and set in 2001 — the Twin Towers have just come down:

“Do you remember that piece of footage on the local news, just as the first tower comes down, woman runs in off the street into a store, just gets the door closed behind her, and here comes this terrible black billowing, ash, debris, sweeping through the streets, gale force past the window . . . that was the moment, Maxi. Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”

“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”

“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs . . . planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”

Finally: if there’s a better book cover than that of Underworld (from a 1972 photograph by by André Kertész) I don’t know what it is:


Crowley, Pynchon, and the hippies

In The Solitudes, the first volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, the series’ protagonist Pierce Moffett reflects:

He had the idea that not many children had been conceived in the year of his own conception, most potential fathers being then off to war, only those with special disabilities (like Pierce’s own) being left to breed. He was too young to be a beatnik; later, he would find himself too old, and too strictly reared, to be a success as a hippie.

Pierce was born in 1942 — the same year as John Crowley himself, whom he does not in other obvious respects resemble — which means that he would have been a child when the beatniks emerged, but well into adulthood when the Era of the Hippie began. Pierce was therefore born between two possibilities of rebellion against bourgeois conventionality, possibilities at which he could look longingly but into which he could never fully enter.

Thomas Pynchon is five years older than the fictional Pierce Moffett and the nonfictional John Crowley, but in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories, he describes precisely the same experience. When he returned to university (Cornell) after spending a couple of intermission years in the Navy, he found that he and his classmates “were at a transition point, a strange post-Beat passage of cultural time…. Unfortunately there were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade had gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.“ The Beats had faded, but their commodified leftovers could be picked up at the local five-and-dime — or, by proxy, on TV.

So “when the hippie resurgence came along ten years later,“ Pynchon’s primary feeling was one of “nostalgia”: nostalgia for something he never quite had, and at his age at the time (early 30s) could no longer grasp. He was again an onlooker.

For Tom Wolfe (born 1931) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, observing the hippies’ world produced a mocking disgust; for Joan Didion (born 1934) in Slouching Towards Bethelehem something more like bemused contempt, leavened by occasional moments of gentle envy. But for Thomas Pynchon and Pierce Moffett and, I think, John Crowley the feeling is more wonderment at a vast world of possibility — possibility for the hippies, but not, alas for those condemned by their age to watch the marvelous parade from the sidelines.

Many readers of both Crowley and Pynchon find their obvious affection for the Sixties hard to swallow, but that’s because we know how it all turned out. The utopian or millenarian hopes of the era — the belief that the Age of Aquarius was being ushered in (Pierce, a historian, keeps telling people that they’re a few hundred years off, though he may be wrong about that) — seem comical in retrospect. Bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, Wavy Gravy, bathetically pseudo-visionary art by Peter Max…. And whatever elements of it tapped into something genuinely powerful — well, there were people who knew how to commodify that and to do so more thoroughly than those hidden persuaders of the Fifties could have dreamed of. (A point to which I shall return.)

But those bedazzled onlookers like Pynchon and Crowley didn’t know that at the time. It could have worked out differently … could it not?

The great theme of Crowley’s Aegypt is: “There is more than one history of the world.” The past, as well as the future, is a garden of forking paths. Here’s how Pierce explains that theme, about which he hopes to write:

“It’s as though,” he said, “as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can’t imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change, bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so.”

And the emergence of those new sciences changed not only the future — the future they would bequeath to us — but what preceded them. The world of the magicians and astrologers and mystics, of John Dee and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and all the disciples of thrice-great Hermes and the wisdom he learned from ancient Aegypt, not only disappeared but became retroactively false. Until the Cartesian moment magic worked and always had; after the Cartesian moment magic didn’t work and never had. The paths fork both ahead and behind.

But if the world can be changed in such a way that the validity of magic is erased from its past as well as its future, might it not possibly change again? Might not the 1960s and 1970s have been another decisive moment, another fork in the path, the initiation of a true novus ordo seclorum?

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.

These are the possibilities of that moment as discerned by Crowley and Pynchon, and because they discerned those possibilities then they have remained ever since deeply attracted to the ideals of that era. Had the hippies won, our histories of thought would feature John Dee where they now feature Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno where they now feature Descartes; and who knows what the shape of our social order might be?

But the hippies didn’t win. What won instead is the Californian ideology. And if you want to picture the moment when the victory of something genuinely “spiritual” and non-commodified and non-panoptic became impossible, when the fusion of fake spirituality with commerce and governmental control ascended its throne, here you go:

the more things change…

The night of May 7, after a chase that began in Watts and ended some 50 blocks farther north, two Los Angeles policemen, Caucasians, succeeded in halting a car driven by Leonard Deadwyler, a Negro. With him were his pregnant wife and a friend. The younger cop (who’d once had a complaint brought against him for rousing some Negro kids around in a more than usually abusive way) went over and stuck his head and gun in the car window to talk to Deadwyler. A moment later there was a shot; the young Negro fell sideways in the seat, and died. The last thing he said, according to the other cop, was, “She’s going to have a baby.”

The coroner’s inquest went on for the better part of two weeks, the cop claiming the car had lurched suddenly, causing his service revolver to go off by accident; Deadwyler’s widow claiming that it was cold-blooded murder and that the car had never moved. The verdict, to no one’s surprise, cleared the cop of all criminal responsibility. It had been an accident. The D.A. announced immediately that he thought so, too, and that as far as he was concerned the case was closed. This story was published, not in 2016, but fifty years ago, in June of 1966. Its author was a young writer whose second novel had appeared a few months earlier. His name? Thomas Pynchon.

to know as I am known (by Apple)

IMG 0190

Take a good look at the iOS screenshot above and you’ll see something interesting. Look just above the keyboard, at the row of suggested words — a new feature in iOS 8, though one that has been around a while in Android.
Apple doesn’t just get its suggestions from a universal dictionary. Its description of this “predictive typing” says,
As you type, you’ll see choices of words or phrases you’d probably type next, based on your past conversations and writing style. iOS 8 takes into account the casual style you might use in Messages and the more formal language you probably use in Mail. It also adjusts based on the person you’re communicating with, because your choice of words is likely more laid back with your spouse than with your boss. Your conversation data is kept only on your device, so it’s always private.
The key phrase here is “based on your past conversations” — but it’s not only conversations that Apple is drawing on.
See the word “DeepArcher”? Not a dictionary word. In fact, it’s a recent coinage, from Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge, where it’s the name of an MMORPG. How did it make its way into a list of “predictions” for my typing?
This is how: I wrote a review of Bleeding Edge. Apple didn’t scan the internet for it, though; rather, a few months ago, I decided to test the “Open in” feature on my iPad, and opened the MS Word version of my review — I always send stuff to editors as .doc files, even though I never actually write anything in Word, and in fact don’t own it — in Pages, Apple’s own word processing application. By opening it in Pages, I saved it to iCloud, and Apple evidently uses all my documents in their cloud, as well as my “conversations” in Messages or in my .me mail (which I don’t use), to create a corpus from which its predictions may be drawn.
Either innocent or creepy, depending on how you think about it. But considering Pynchon’s status as the unquestioned poet laureate of paranoia, there’s something perversely appropriate about that word showing up on my keyboard — and about my surprise when it did.

In the closing pages of Bleeding Edge, perspectives alter; all that had been in the forefront of the readerly consciousness moves strangely to the background, and ideas and experiences hitherto shift to the forefront. And all this happens in a way that few of us associate with Pynchon. It is customary to say of him that his characters are not “real,” that his intellectual pyrotechnics and metafictional games are arid, emotionally empty. This is a misreading, I think, though perhaps an understandable one: those pyrotechnics, that ceaseless jokiness, the ridiculous names (of which there are fewer in Bleeding Edge than any other Pynchon book), do tend to create a smokescreen. But from Oedipa Maas’s late intuition of a world either saturated with or utterly evacuated of meaning, to the desperate wartime love-making of Roger and Jessica in Gravity’s Rainbow, to the love of Zoyd Wheeler for his daughter Prairie in Vineland, to the warmth and resilience of the friendship between Mason and Dixon in the novel that bears their names, there is more genuine depth of feeling in Pynchon’s fiction than is often acknowledged. But in Bleeding Edge he confronts more openly and directly than he ever has the power of ordinary human love.

Doc was in the toilet pissing during a commercial break when he heard Sauncho screaming at the television set. He got back to find his attorney just withdrawing his nose from the screen. “Everything cool?”

“Ahh …” collapsing on the couch, “Charlie the fucking Tuna, man.”


“It’s all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he’s got good taste, except he’s also dyslexic so he gets ‘good taste’ mixed up with ‘taste good,’ but it’s worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it… .”

— Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Whenever Doc needed to know anything touching on the world of property, Aunt Reet, with her phenomenal lot-by-lot grasp of land use from the desert to the sea, as they liked to say on the evening news, was the one he went to. “Someday,” she prophesied, “there will be computers for this, all you’ll have to do’s type in what you’re looking for, or even better just talk it in — like that HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? — and it’ll be right back at you with more information than you’d ever want to know, any lot in the L.A. Basin, all the way back to the Spanish land grants—water rights, encumbrances, mortgage histories, whatever you want, trust me, it’s coming.” Till then, in the real non-sci-fi world, there was Aunt Reet’s bordering-on-the-supernatural sense of the land, the stories that seldom appeared in deeds or contracts, especially matrimonial, the generations of family hatreds big and small, the way the water flowed, or used to.

— Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

But in the domain of zero to one, not-something to something, Pointsman can only possess the zero and the one. He cannot, like Mexico, survive anyplace in between. Like his master I. P. Pavlov before him, he imagines the cortex of the brain as a mosaic of tiny on/off elements. Some are always in bright excitation, others darkly inhibited. The contours, bright and dark, keep changing. But each point is allowed only the two states: waking or sleep. One or zero. “Summation,” “transition,” “irradiation,” “concentration,” “reciprocal induction”—all Pavlovian brain-mechanics—assumes the presence of these bi-stable points. But to Mexico belongs the domain between zero and one—the middle Pointsman has excluded from his persuasion—the probabilities. A chance of 0.37 that, by the time he stops his count, a given square on his map will have suffered only one hit, 0.17 that it will suffer two… .

“Can’t you … tell,” Pointsman offering Mexico one of his Kyprinos Orients, which he guards in secret fag fobs sewn inside all his lab coats, “from your map here, which places would be safest to go into, safest from attack?”


— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow